Monday, March 3, 2014

Why Ukraine Matters

The Taras Shevchenko [Poet of Ukrainian Identity] Monument, Lviv, Ukraine

The Present-day Site of the Munich Agreement that doomed Czechoslovakia in Sep 1938

In my capacity as “The Org Guy,” I look at what organizations do with people, and I tend to eschew politics, since there are enough talking heads out there.  But in my opinion, the recent events in Ukraine demonstrate significant issues with huge organizational and societal implications, issues that should concern us all.

First, despite the current emphasis on diversity in American culture, in Europe national or even tribal identity can still exert a powerful influence on people and their behavior.  The Russians are playing the card of “national identity” to the fullest in Ukraine right now, for all the wrong reasons.  Putin’s thuggish behavior is eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s advances into Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1938 and 1939.  Hitler annexed each of those independent nations in the name of “protecting” German nationals beyond the borders of the Third Reich.

Second, in the “we’ve seen this movie before” department, we should recall that the responses of the Western democracies in 1938, as Hitler secured Austria and a part of Czechoslovakia (Sudetenland), were pitifully weak.  On 30 September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to England from negotiations in Munich with Hitler where the Western powers allowed Hitler to annex Sudetenland (a predominantly German-speaking area) from Czechoslovakia.  Upon his return, Chamberlain triumphantly declared, “Peace for our time.”  Less than six months later, Hitler seized all of Czechoslovakia.  At least at that point Chamberlain realized he’d been played for a fool, and he began to prepare his nation for war.  When Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, once again invoking the plight of the “oppressed German minority” and inserting German soldiers into Poland in fake Polish uniforms to create a phony pretext (the Gleiwitz Incident), the Second World War began.  In less than one year from that date, the British Empire would be led by a man who had long warned about Hitler’s aggression: Winston Churchill.

The immediate reactions of Western democracies to Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine are equally pitiful, at least at the time of this blog posting.  Just as Putin seems to be using Hitler’s playbook, the Western democracies seem to be using Chamberlain’s Munich playbook.  While it may be important for politicians in democracies to “create the right narrative” for their constituents, such an effort is irrelevant when a predator is on the loose outside their borders.

The West needs to “man up” in a hurry.  The first step is to coldly comprehend what is at stake.  Ukraine is an internationally recognized (including by the Russian Federation) independent nation.  Yes, it possesses venal politicians (what nation doesn’t, I might ask), but the recent demonstrations in Kiev clearly show that a significant portion of their population wants something better.  The Ukrainians want to be part of the West.  That means they aspire to have a system of laws, processes, and institutions where power is openly channeled and monitored. Most importantly, it also means that they want to be part of a culture, society, and polity that foster growth.  The culture of cumulative improvement has propelled the West in the last two hundred years to elevate living standards, both materially and psychologically, to a degree inconceivable in previous human history.  The West changed the human perception of wealth from the finite pie, or the zero-sum game, to the ever-expanding pie, and this has changed attitudes and behaviors for the better on a vast scale.  But not everywhere – a good portion of the globe still behaves with a zero-sum mindset. 

Vladimir Putin, like Adolf Hitler and other tyrants, firmly stands in the camp of the finite pie.  If someone has something of value, they will try to seize it.  This is reflected in Russia’s utter dependence on the extraction of natural resources for its wealth.  While the basis of wealth in the West is human talent, the vital force that drives sustainable growth, Russia under Putin represses any talent that could be a threat to central control by the current vainglorious megalomaniac.  The net that tyrants cast to limit potential competition is very large, indeed.  The foundation of Putin’s power is the high price of oil, not the output of free human beings.  The results are dismally clear: Russia is a dying nation, with low birth rates, low life expectancy, and the constant loss of young talent to other nations.  Just as the Soviet system crushed the human spirit, so do Putin and his lackeys, under the slightly different guise of rabid nationalism.  Many Ukrainians know the choice they face: it even goes beyond freedom vs. tyranny; it is between a promising life and a slow death.

After acknowledging this harsh reality, the West must now resolve not to allow the Ukrainians to be sucked into the Russian black hole, from which no light ever seems to emerge.  The West must consider all its options.  Having been outwitted by Russia in the Republic of Georgia, in negotiations with Iran, in the Syrian Civil War, and now in Ukraine, the West must show that it finally recognizes what is at stake.  Despite the pablum being uttered by some politicians that “freedom will always prevail,” freedom does not always triumph.  Progress is fragile; it must be protected and defended.  Unfortunately, tyrants with their zero-sum mindsets only respond to the direct and forceful denial of their schemes.  The West (the English-speaking world, Europe, Japan, and other aspiring nations) has the means; now it must find the will, and quickly.  The West should not waste time constructing a comforting narrative to rationalize its weakness; the West needs a Churchill to lead the way.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mechanistic and Organic Forces: An Olympic View

[Statue of Prince Yuri, founder of Moscow]

As the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi commence, it is worth using the theme of organic and mechanistic forces within organizations and societies to examine the challenge of security at the games.  As one who remembers watching the Munich Olympics in 1972 on television, I fully understand that few things are more horrible than having terrorists ruin one of the few effective global events we possess.  This is a significant concern for the Olympics at Sochi, and the publicity around this issue presents a solid example of the interplay of organic and mechanistic forces, that is, the decentralized, ingrained, “bottom up” organic behaviors within an organization or group, and the directive, “top down” mechanistic forces. 

There is no doubt that the Sochi Olympics presents a great opportunity for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin to showcase “his” Russia – powerful, confident, and well ordered.  The Olympic venue also provides a potential target for terrorists, particularly those from the nearby Caucasus regions, where bitter feuds with Russia have existed for decades.  We have watched a vigorous effort by President Putin to ensure safety at the Olympics: a 40 thousand person security force, a “ring of steel” to protect all the sites.  Putin is conducting his final walk-through in these last days before the games begin.  All of these efforts are classic mechanistic efforts, and few nations do “top down” more vigorously than the Russians.  This effort is impressive.  Christopher Buckley in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal (Jan 31, 2014) noted, “Vigorous security is perhaps the one advantage to an Olympiad hosted by an absolutist dictatorship.”

But how much thought has been devoted to the other side of the coin, the organic forces?  Directives from above can make great sound bites, but do they really influence behavior at the ground level?  This is where I have my own concerns.  On a recent trip to Russia (2012), I noted that there were several metal detectors – at hotels, museums, and train stations.  I also noted that very few of the (usually) uniformed people monitoring them seemed to be paying any attention.  I almost always set the sensors off as I walked through, and no one responded in any manner.  I also noted that other people walking through set the detectors off, and that also drew no response.  Clearly things will be “amped up” for the Olympics, but all it requires for one terrorist to enter the venue is to have a few security checkpoints not operating to high standards.  I fear that is a strong possibility in Russia today.  Regrettably, indifference, drunkenness, and petty corruption are endemic in Russian society today.  This corrodes the effectiveness of most Russian organizations, including the armed forces and security services.  The organic forces in Russia, in almost any endeavor, are clearly not aligned with the directives from above exhorting high standards. 

The risk in a mismatch of organic and mechanistic forces is obvious in many cases, but that risk is often overlooked, especially by those at the top.  This failure of accurate assessment of organic forces frequently causes overreach by those at the top (the mechanistic drivers).  It behooves all organizations and societies to assess themselves realistically from top to bottom, and future blogs will examine the cases where the two forces are in wonderful alignment.  Let us hope that the probable misalignment at Sochi does not lead to a catastrophe.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Theme of Organic and Mechanistic Forces in Organizations and Societies

One of the most profound and helpful themes that I have come across in analyzing organizations is the theme of two forces: mechanistic and organic.  This concept has been used to analyze organizational dynamics from businesses to entire nations.  Briefly, in an organic organization the “way to do things” emerges from the bottom up.  The direction, processes, and values of the organization are all generated from within the organization.  This leads to a customized organizational structure, one that is generally difficult to capture in a diagram.  Individual skills/knowledge, relationships, and personalities are very important driving forces as the organic organization evolves.  Communication runs mostly laterally.  The other force, mechanistic, is easier to envision: guidance for the “way to do things” comes from above.  There is clearly defined structure that (one hopes) delineates decision-making authority and assigned tasks.  Communication runs mostly vertically.

I first read about these two forces not from an analysis of business organizations, but from the history of China.  In preparing for a trip to China in the late 1980s, I discovered an interpretation of Chinese history that described the 3,000 years of Chinese history as a sine curve: a ruler would have the Mandate of Heaven, the moral authority to rule over the kingdom (mechanistic), but over time, the dynasty would become corrupt.  A new force would arise from the people (from the bottom up) to overthrow the corrupt regime.  These organic forces would eventually become sufficiently powerful to destroy the existing dynasty, replacing it.  Once established, this new power would assume top-down authority (mechanistic), and, in the beginning, would rule wisely.  With the passage of time, however, that dynasty would also become corrupt, create resentment, and eventually be overthrown by organically generated opposing forces. 

While we in the West tend to view history, especially our own history from 1500 onward, as linear, with a line progressing upward (with some nasty bumps along the way – see below, second diagram), this view of Chinese history suggests a sine curve, with predictable highs and lows and consistent repetition (see below, first diagram). For the sake of further analysis, if we were to attribute such a world-view to present Chinese leaders, one could see why the ruling Communist Party in China might feel somewhat anxious, as they try to determine where their current dynasty sits on the relentless sine curve of China’s history.

[Different views of history or human progress: repetitive ups and downs (sine curve) or steady progress upward (ascending line on graph):]

Ascending Graph

I later returned to the concept of mechanistic and organic forces when I read The Management of Innovation, by Tom Burns and G. M. Stalker.  This book, written in 1961, examined engineering firms in postwar Britain as they entered into business environments where significant changes in technology and the markets were emerging.  Overall, Burns and Stalker found that organizations that were more “organic,” that is, less hierarchical, were better suited for changing situations, while mechanistic management systems were better suited for stable environments. 

My own experiences with large organizations suggest that this distinction, organic and mechanistic systems or forces, is more complex than simply labeling an organization one or the other.  Reality makes this less an “either/or” proposition for an organization, and more of a “what is the right balance of each” question.  Many of the key forces that define an organization and how it works are organic, that is, they develop from within the organization itself.  Many of the habits and assumptions that determine how an organization behaves have emerged from the bottom up in the organization.  We have all been in organizations where some lingering attitudes or beliefs were “home grown” over the years, and which, if undesirable (for example), proved to be very difficult to modify or eliminate, even through a concerted “top-down” effort.  At the same time, all organizations, by definition, are stratified.  Many organizations may pride themselves on being “flat,” but there will always be some form of hierarchy around direction, assigning resources, decision-making, and execution. Therefore, I suggest that we can make organizations more effective by viewing organic and mechanistic forces as the ying and yang of all organizations, and determining the best mix for given situations.

For example, there are certainly situations that call for straightforward hierarchy – the classic mechanistic approach.  I recall the words of an oil executive to me, when he was describing the demands of an oil refinery: “We don’t want any experimentation – we want everyone to do exactly what they’re supposed to do.”   There are times when the vertical lines of communication must work and work effectively. 

But the organic forces are always present as well, especially on the emotional side.  Although countless tyrants have tried, no one can command people’s emotions from above.  The culture of an organization, that set of beliefs and assumptions that determines how things get done, is almost always heavily influenced by organic forces.  Informal networks can emerge that are more effective than the formal relationships on the wire diagrams.

Besides organizations inherently being a mix of mechanistic and organic forces, some organizations seek to generate the advantage of an organic-leaning  organization [please see my blog in three weeks on innovation] by encapsulating an organic sub-organization within a larger, more mechanistic one.  This is the classic use of a skunk works, think-tank, or innovation center within the larger, mechanisitc-leaning parent organization.  Some of these attempts have been quite successful, as I will discuss in a later blog.

However, I believe there is a bias that distorts this organic/mechanistic yin and yang.  Most courses in business and politics stress the importance of effective top-down management.  There is far less celebration of creating an environment that allows for more bottom-up influence and creativity.  The most effective organizations that I have observed, both in business and the military, are where strong organic values were consistently reinforced by wise, top-down actions.  In those situations I observed people at all levels in effective organizations who were, individually, both reasonably happy and successful.  That is a worthy goal, and we need leaders who will pursue it.